Authors: Francine Pascal
To Barney Miller
always a guy. A boy, really. Bubble boy.
You see them on TV sometimes, or read about them in books, or maybe you've just listened to the millions of lame jokes, but you get the basic idea. Boy. In bubble.
They have to stay in the bubble because they were born with this genetic problem. One of their genes got screwed up in a certain way that keeps them from having an immune system. It's kind of like being born with AIDS, but even worse. These guys can die from anything. Bad cold? Dead. Flu? Dead. Mumps? Dead. Dead. Dead. All kinds of germs that don't even make a normal person sick at all can kill them before anyone even figured out what was wrong.
The only way these guys can stay alive is to keep a wall between them and the rest of the world. They can't ever touch another person without wearing some kind of big plastic gloves. No hugs from Mom. No kisses on the cheek. No way can they go to school. School is the hot zone for germs.
People can be right next to them, all around them, but they can never touch. There's always that wall, the wall between the bubble boys and the rest of the world. Keeping them isolated. Keeping them alive.
Here's a scientific fact for the day: the reason it's almost always a bubble boy is because that busted gene is on the X chromosome. Guys have only one of those. Screw it up, and they're screwed for good. Girls come equipped with two. Break one, and there's a backup. Not too many bubble girls. Not too many bubble men, eitherâbubble boys usually don't live that long.
So, whatever is wrong with me, it's probably not a bad X chromosome. Maybe it is genetic. Maybe not. I've been led down the wrong road so many different times.
Daddy gave you bad drugs, Gaia. Daddy went all Jurassic Park on your genes, Gaia. Daddy built little Franken-Gaia with a blowtorch and some spare parts.
Who knows what to believe? Who cares?
Whatever caused me to be the way I am, I've ended up as the opposite of a bubble boy. I don't mean I can't get sick. Show me a cold virus and I can produce more snot than a rhino. The only thing I'm completely immune to is fear. Never felt it, probably never will. I still need that bubble, though. A nice, safe barrier between me and the rest of the world. Not to protect me. To protect the world.
See, it's not me that dies when I get touchedâit's everyone else. My mom? Dead. Sam, the first guy I ever loved? Dead. Mary, my best friend? Dead. Dead. Dead.
It could be that they all died of the same disease. A disease that walks on two legs and goes by the name of Loki. A disease that's also my uncle.
But if Loki is the disease, I'm the carrier. I take the infection out to the rest of the world.
Even with the population of Gaia's personal graveyard always on the rise, there are still a few people in the world that I care about. There's my father. My MIA, CIA father. He knows more about what's going on than he will tell me, which is a good reason to hate him. And I do. Sometimes. But even when I'm busy hating him, I still love him. I think. Anyway, at the moment he's off in God knows where doing God knows what and probably in danger.
There's Tatiana. She's not part of my family or anythingâat least, not yet. It's not like she's my best friend, either. But lately she's been helping me figure out whatever's going on with her mom and my dad. The two of them might be missing together, which could be good for them because I know my dad is in love with Tatiana's mother. That is, if both of them are still alive. So I care about Tatiana, at least a little.
But the biggest reason I have to stay in the Gaia bubble is Ed. Ed, the first guy I ever had sex with. Ed, the guy I still love. Ed, the guy I've managed to piss off for weeks now. Ed, the guy that poured out his heart to me and left convinced that I didn't care. That Ed.
By now Ed has probably written me off as a lost cause. Tatiana has a black belt in flirting, and she's been using all her best moves on Ed. The two of them have been spending a lot of time together. I know Ed's gone completely AWOL on her for the last couple of days, but wherever he's been hiding, I'll bet that the next time I see him, he'll be in Tatiana's arms. And that's good. That's what I want, the way it has to be. That's the plastic bubble that protects Ed from the disease I'm carrying.
But why does it have to feel so miserable? So I can work up a good, self-righteous I'm-doing-this-to-protect-him kind of feeling? That feeling, as they say, will not keep me warm on a cold night.
Doesn't matter. Until this is all over, I've got to stay inside my chilly little bubble. Look, but don't touch. See, but don't feel.
The Amazing Bubble Girl, keeping the world safe from myself.
Playing happy was not exactly a Gaia Moore specialty. Turning every hurt into anger and making a solid fist-to-face connectionâthat was more her style.
THE PHONE RANG A FOURTH
time. Fifth. Gaia thumped her hand against the metal pay phone and listened as a sixth ring came from the other end. She could picture the old wall phone ringing in the kitchen of the brownstone, the sound echoing off all the expensiveâand unusedâcookware. She could see the curving staircase. Was the house completely empty, or was old George Niven stumbling down those stairs toward the phone? George had been there just last nightâGaia and Tatiana had seen him. Maybe George was just about to answer. Gaia let the phone ring one more time.
Come on, Georgie. Pick up.
The phone rang twice more. Gaia sighed and was about to hang up when the receiver made a sudden click.
“Hello, there,” said a woman's voice. The tone was cool, self-possessed. “I'm afraid that we can't take your call at the moment. Please leave.Â .Â .”
Gaia hung up the pay phone before the message could end. It was Ella.
The voice in the message was George's wife, Ella. Only Ella Niven had been dead for months.
A little tingly feeling went up the back of Gaia's neck, once again demonstrating that just because you didn't feel fear didn't mean you couldn't be solidly creeped out. Wasn't George ever going to get around to changing the message? It was kind of sweet that he had left his wife's voice on the phone. It was also pretty sick.
For a few seconds Gaia stood and looked at the pay phone. She thought about calling again, but she didn't want to take the chance of hearing Ella's voice a second time. Hearing Ella had never been a blast when she was alive. Hearing her dead.Â .Â . that was a thrill Gaia would just as soon skip, thank you.
She flipped up the hood on her sweatshirt, hunched her shoulders, and walked away from the phone booth. A businesswoman went past on her left, followed by a college-age guy in some ridiculous parka thing that looked like something you would wear on top of the Matterhorn instead of in lower Manhattan. Gaia gave them both a quick exam as they passed. Were they part of Loki's organization? Was one of them following Gaia, making notes about her, reporting on her every move? Somebody was. Gaia knew that much.
Loki's agents were out there. Tracking where she went. Who she saw. When she came in, when she went out. Probably
taking notes on what kind of Jell-O she had for lunch
at the stupid school cafeteria.
Of course, the first one to tell Gaia that she was being followed was George Niven. So maybe she really wasn't being followed. After all, everything else George had told her had been a big fat slimy sack of lies.
Gaia had bought into all of it at first. That was the worst part, how quickly she had swallowed the whole story. But why shouldn't she? Good old George was her father's best and oldest friend. He was going to help Gaia. He was going to help her catch the bad guys. Good old trustworthy George.
Only George was one of the bad guys. George had told her that Tatiana's mother, Natasha, was the enemy. That Natasha had been spying on Gaia's father. And Gaia had believed it. Even after she found a stack of love letters between her father and Natasha, Gaia had still been ready to believe George. Gaia had been willing to do anything, even hurt Natasha or Tatiana, to protect her father. She had been
stupid on a galactic scale.
If it hadn't been for Tatiana, Gaia would have still been convinced that George was trying to help. Gaia had never doubted which side George was on. Come on, George Niven? Best friend and mentor to her father? The same George Niven whose brownstone Gaia had lived in for months? Paunchy, gray-haired, harmless old George? George could be clueless, sure, but no way could he be on the Dark Side. That wasn't possible.
Okay, so maybe buying into the lies wasn't the worst part. Having Tatiana prove her wrong; that was the worst part.
Tatiana hadn't been fooled by good old George. No matter what Gaia said, she didn't trust the ex-agent. Tatiana had badgered and pleaded and whined until she finally got Gaia to agree to make a trip to George's brownstone. The only reason Gaia had gone along was to prove once and for all that she was right, Tatiana was wrong, and Tatiana should just shut up. Only that wasn't how it worked out.
When they snuck through the window of the room that used to be Gaia's bedroom, they had gotten a glimpse of a meeting between good old George and the seriously un-good Loki. Maybe George had been a friend to Gaia's father once. Maybe he had even been a friend to Gaia. That wasn't true anymore. George was working for Loki and lying to Gaia.
So maybe there wasn't anybody following Gaia. Maybe that was all part of the big pile of steaming hot crap that George had put in Gaia's eager hands. Maybe Loki was laughing somewhere about making Gaia look over her shoulder. After all, it was perfectly obvious that George had been lying to her from the start.
But Gaia didn't think so. Not this time. The part about being followed every moment of her life. That part Gaia still believed.
It had rained that morning, and the sidewalks were still splotched by puddles. Gaia hopped over a wide muddy spot and managed to keep from getting her sneakers soaked. Then a car went past on the street and sent a wave of oily water washing across her feet. Gaia gave the driver a glance. The guy behind the wheel looked weird, but half the people in the city were weird. This guy in a Buick probably wasn't keeping a Gaia notebook, and he probably hadn't gotten her shoes wet on Loki's orders. Probably. But even paranoids had enemies. Gaia tromped on down the damp sidewalk toward the park.
This whole phone call thing had probably been a bad idea. The latest in a long series of Gaia's Really Bad Ideas. She knew that, really. If Gaia had actually believed calling George was a good idea, she would have done it from the apartment. She would have had Tatiana on the other line so they could talk about it. She wouldn't have left Tatiana snoozing and snuck out to make the call from some pay phone.
After all, how smart was it to call the guy you just found out was setting you up? But Gaia was hoping that if she could convince George she was still in the dark, she could turn this thing around. If he didn't know that he had been caught with Loki, Gaia might be able to feed him bad information, get him to make mistakes, maybe even get him to spill something about what had really happened to her father and Natasha.
Gaia squeezed her eyes shut and stood still for a moment. Just trying to think it through was enough to make her head hurt. Anyway, it was hard to pass bad information to someone if they wouldn't even answer the phone.
She walked across the street and slipped into Washington Square Park. She fought the temptation to look over her shoulder as she passed through the gates. If people were following her, they were probably pretty good at it. After all, they had been following her for months and she hadn't seen them yet. It wasn't like they were suddenly going to start waving or carrying signs that said I'm Following Stupid. Gaia kept her face forward and kept walking.
The chess players were mostly gone from their place near the center of the park, and those few that were still at their tables seemed deep in the endgames of long matches. Gaia skirted around the area, anyway. She didn't want to play at the moment and didn't want to deal with Zolov, or Mr. Pak, or anyone else that might be looking for a late game. She had to think. She had to figure out the next step.
She thought about going back to the East Side apartment and meeting Tatiana. Together they might have a better shot at coming up with a plan. After all, it was Tatiana that figured out the truth about George. Maybe she would have some good ideas.
Something better than playing phone tag with the enemy.
But Gaia didn't go home. She just kept marching.
Part of it was that she wasn't ready to meet with Tatiana. Part of it was that she liked walkingâit was what she did when she needed to think. Most of it was that she had been doing things on her own for so long that it was hard to change. The last person she had trusted was George, and that had been a big mistake. Once you convinced yourself that you couldn't trust anyone, how did you ever start trusting again?